Why Manuscripts?: The Value of Studying Ancient Documents
Authors of the New Testament penned their words long before the advent of the printing press. As their work circulated, scribes copied the wording from these documents in order to share the letters, historical accounts, and prophecies further. The authors’ original manuscripts no longer exist, most likely having disintegrated with time and use. Thousands of extant handwritten copies, however, contain the text transmitted by the original authors, some reaching back as early as the second century AD. These Greek New Testament manuscripts today serve as the primary source of accounts of Jesus and the apostles. CSNTM seeks to continue the work of scribes by preserving copies of the New Testament, albeit in digital rather than material form, for generations to come.
Beyond Textual Studies
Art historians, papyrologists, codicologists, paleographers, and archivists have a significant interest in New Testament manuscripts. These artifacts attest to the history of writing, art, and bookmaking. Some researchers endeavor to trace the transmission history and evidence of how people interacted with the documents. Illustrations, commentary, marginal notes, and even the location of wax drippings from ancient candles reveal the attention and passion with which people of earlier centuries approached the pages of Greek New Testament manuscripts.
Descriptions for different features and components of the manuscripts in CSNTM’s digital collection are below.
The Gregory-Aland (GA) numbers refer to a system formed by the work of New Testament scholars Caspar René Gregory and Kurt Aland that makes up the Kurzgefaßte Liste “brief list”, the official catalogue of Greek New Testament Manuscripts. The GA system is the standard way of referring to Greek New Testament manuscripts in New Testament textual criticism
The GA number system designates categories that scholars use to organize and refer to New Testament manuscripts. Each category takes different forms based on the materials and handwriting of each manuscript. See examples of the different GA number forms and what they describe:
The P designation indicates papyrus documents. The earliest Greek New Testament manuscripts were written on papyrus, a material made from the papyrus plant. Manuscripts in this category were written in a majuscule script, an early form of Greek handwriting. They differ from the majuscule category by the material on which they were written.
GA numbers, which do not begin with a zero, indicate documents written in minuscule handwriting, which was used by later scribes. Minuscule handwriting changed over time as scribes used it. Every form, though, is indicated by a number 1–2900+ following “GA.”
GA numbers that begin with a zero indicate majuscule manuscripts. This category of manuscript includes those written in majuscule script on parchment, differentiating them from papyrus manuscripts. A capital letter and a corresponding descriptive name serve as alternate titles for majuscules GA 01–045.
GA Lect 430
The abbreviation “lect” or a cursive letter “l” indicates lectionary books. These New Testament documents contain Scripture readings according to the liturgical calendar. Some Greek New Testaments include a lectionary guide, which indicates which passage gatherings should read on certain dates without changing the ordering of the books or chapters. Lectionary books, however, are ordered and arranged according to the church calendar.
MATERIALS & HANDWRITING
Papyrus is an ancient writing surface made from the papyrus plant. The earliest extant copies of the New Testament were written on this material.
Parchment was a common writing surface from the 4th to 14th centuries, made of animal skin. Tanners took the hides of animals, cleaned them, and stretched them thin to produce large sheets. The sheets were folded into quires, which are gatherings of parchment leaves, often grouped with other folded quires and bound into a codex, an antique version of a book.
Both parchment and paper were available for manuscript production in the medieval period. The widespread opinion held that parchment was the more durable of the two materials. Paper, therefore, appeared less commonly until the advent of the printing press. Once paper production increased, the material was more frequently selected.
Scribes used a majuscule handwriting from the 4th century B.C. until about the 9th century A.D., though we find the usage of this script continuing beyond the 9th century in some liturgical texts. The style of majuscule changed throughout the period of its use but remained in this form, which is somewhat equivalent to capital letters.
A more compact and efficient form of writing, the minuscule script developed after majuscule handwriting. Over the course of its use, minuscule handwriting morphed into different styles, including many ligatures and shorthand forms.
Any manuscript on the Liste, the official list of Greek New Testament manuscripts, contains anywhere from a few verses to every book of the New Testament. Most Greek New Testament manuscripts only contain portions of the New Testament, a few books or even a few chapters. Larger categories help us to group manuscripts together based on their content.
The traditional categories are:
Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
Pauline: Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews
Acts and Catholic Epistles: Acts, James, 1–2 Peter, 1–3 John, and Jude
Apocalypse/Revelation : Revelation